Preliminary Examination

All PhD students must pass a preliminary examination. The examination consists of a focused research paper based on the analysis of language data. A one-page proposal for this paper, prepared in consultation with the advisor and approved by the advisor, must be submitted to the Prelim committee by February 15 of the student’s first year in the program. This proposal should describe the questions that you are planning to investigate, the methods that you plan to use to address these questions, what linguistic properties you will use to create your analysis and the size and current state of the corpus of data that you plan to use (in particular whether it is already 'marked up' for the features that you intend to investigate or, alternatively, whether you will have to annotate the tokens in the corpus yourself). Once the one-page proposal has been approved by the prelim committee, the student may, if he or she desires additional feedback, submit a 5-page pilot analysis, taking into account comments on the one-page proposal received from the committee and advisor. The expanded proposal, if submitted, is due the Monday following the return from Spring Break. It must include the already approved one-page proposal, along with more details of the hypotheses and methodologies, a detailed outline and sample data analysis. Positive feedback received on the expanded proposal does not guarantee that the finished paper will pass. After the student has received approval of the one-page proposal, or feedback on the five-page expanded proposal (if this has been submitted), the student is not permitted to consult with anyone during the exam-writing process.

Students who are unable to complete either the proposal or the preliminary exam itself may request a postponement until the following calendar year, which must be approved by the preliminary exam committee. Postponement of submission of either the proposal or the prelim itself will count as the first attempt at passing the exam; therefore, a student who elects to postpone the exam will have only one opportunity to pass it. In extreme circumstances (e.g., a health or family emergency), the student may submit a petition for delay of submission to the prelim committee chair. That decision will be made by vote of the prelim committee. The committee may request supporting documentation (e.g., a letter from a physician confirming a medical condition). If the student’s petition is accepted, the postponement will not count as an exam attempt.

The finished paper must be submitted by close of business on October 1 of the student’s second year. It is submitted to the graduate assistant as an email PDF attachment. The graduate assistant will ensure that the paper is routed to the appropriate committee members. The paper must conform to the following specifications:

  • Font: Times New Roman, 12-point
  • Formatting: double-spaced, with 1” margins all around
  • Length: no longer than 12,500 words

Prelim papers are read and evaluated by the prelim committee and the advisor, and are assigned a grade of pass or fail. Students who fail the exam or fail to submit the exam by the deadline must submit a new proposal in the following year’s cycle. Students who fail the examination a second time are dismissed from the program. If a student attempting the prelim for the second time submits a paper that is not judged as passing by a majority of the prelim committee, the paper will then be evaluated by all faculty members. ​For the purpose of this rule, forfeiting the first opportunity to submit the prelim will count as a first attempt. 

Comprehensive Examination

The University’s comprehensive examination requirement is satisfied in two steps, following satisfaction of the preliminary exam requirement. These steps are: completion of a synthesis paper and successful defense of the dissertation prospectus. Note that the committee that will evaluate the synthesis exam is a three-member committee (which may have a different composition from the thesis committee), while the committee that will evaluate dissertation prospectus is the five-member thesis committee, which must contain at least one CU faculty member from outside the Department. 

The Synthesis Paper

In the first step, the student completes a synthesis paper that compares theoretical and methodological approaches to an issue in a way that covers one or more subareas of linguistics.  Fulfilling the synthesis requirement is a one-year process. In consultation with the three-member advisory committee, the student determines a general subject area for the exam (potential areas include aspectual systems; language and gender from an interactional perspective; nasalization; gesture and pointing practices; supervised learning in natural language processing). In consultation with the committee, the student then establishes a broad reading list covering the relevant literature in the field, normally consisting of several dozen articles and/or books. This reading list should ideally be completed at the end of the third semester in the PhD program, after the student completes the preliminary exam, but should certainly be completed early in the fourth semester.

The student spends the fourth semester reading the materials on the reading list while consulting regularly with the main advisor. By the end of that semester, the student, in consultation with the committee, should arrive at a paper topic that will allow for a theoretical discussion of some key issue in the chosen subfield. This topic will normally be narrower than the overall synthesis subject area (thus one might discuss pointing practices in relation to determiners and demonstratives, the role of lexical aspect in clausal syntax, or pronoun usage as a component of embodied gendered identity). Students are strongly encouraged to submit a formal synthesis proposal to the advisor that maps out the proposed structure of the synthesis paper. Once the advisor approves the synthesis proposal, s/he will circulate it for approval from the other two committee members. The discussion in the paper should outline major approaches to or understandings of the issue in question from a critical perspective: rather than simply summarizing the approaches or understandings, the student should point out disagreements, weaknesses and limitations, or points of commonality. The point of this exercise is to reveal the student’s ability to think both critically and independently, by requiring the student not merely to report what others have said or done, but rather to develop an individual perspective on the issue in question. This paper certainly can, but need not, be used as a foundation for the dissertation prospectus.

This paper should be submitted to the committee by the end of classes of the fifth semester, although it may be submitted earlier. In any case, it must be submitted by the end of the sixth semester in order for the student to be viewed as making adequate progress. All members of the committee may require rewrites and clarifications, and all members of the committee must approve the synthesis paper before the synthesis requirement is passed. The student is welcome to receive feedback from the primary advisor on any draft prior to submission to the full commitee (whether the submission is an initial submission or a revision). The paper is submitted to the graduate assistant as an email PDF attachment. The graduate assistant will ensure that the paper  is routed to the appropriate committee members. The paper must conform to the following specifications: 

  • Font: Times New Roman, 12-point
  • Formatting: double-spaced, with 1” margins all around
  • Length: no longer than 12,500 words

The synthesis paper may be attempted a total of three times, where an attempt is defined as a formal submission to the three-member advisory committee. If in the judgment of the three-member committee the third submission is unacceptable, the student will be asked to leave the program. 

The Dissertation Prospectus 

In the second step, the student prepares and defends a dissertation prospectus before the five-member committee. In the prospectus, you will set out the state of the art concerning the linguistic questions you have undertaken to address (citing appropriate prior literature), describe gaps in the state of the art and explain what new methods and perspectives you will bring to bear that will address those gaps. The prospectus should describe in detail the research plan, expected results and the timeline for completing the project. A student officially becomes a candidate for the doctoral degree after successfully defending the dissertation prospectus. This step involves submission of paperwork to the Graduate School.